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Saeed Jones’s ‘Prelude To Bruise’: Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

Saeed Jones begins this electrifying book—one of the most exciting debut collections I’ve read in years—with a quotation from Kafka’s notebooks: “The man in ecstasy and the man drowning—both throw up their arms.”

Prelude to BruiseIt’s a powerful opening for these searing poems, in which pleasure and pain are often indistinguishable, and in which desire is almost always inextricable from violence. “I’ve got more hunger than my body can hold,” Jones writes in “Last Call,” and hunger often drives the speakers of these poems to danger. “Night presses the gunmetal O of its mouth / against my own,” he writes in the same poem; “I can’t help how I answer.”

How to tell apart joy and pain in a book where dancing is “a way / of mapping out hell with my feet,” as Jones writes in “In Nashville,” and looks like “Guernica on all fours” (“Katamine and Company”), where “Even a peacock feather comes to a point” (“Thallium”)?

In “Pretending to Drown,” even one of the book’s most tender scenes—two boys go skinny dipping together—holds out the promise of a threat. The speaker sinks under the water to see the other boy “as the lake saw you: cut in half / by the surface, taut legs kicking / the rest of you sky.” It’s a game, but also an invitation, and when he comes back up it’s accepted: “slick grin, / knowing glance; you pushed me / back under. // I pretended to drown, / then swallowed you whole.”

In Prelude to Bruise, Jones takes on at once the most intimate and the most public of themes: desire, family, race, art, America and its romance with violence. But the book’s real ambition is to force us to see that any division between public and private is arbitrary, if not fraudulent. It’s often said that the personal is political; few books have made me feel it as viscerally as this one.

These poems bear witness to the fact that to be black and gay in America—and especially in the American South—is to be confronted with violence from every side: on the street and in the home; from strangers and friends alike; most painfully, from within the self.

Many of the poems take place in cities—Birmingham, Jasper, New Orleans—that are sites of particular trauma in the history of race in America. In “Lower Ninth,” the speaker observes the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, still devastated long after Katrina. In “Jasper, 1998,” a haunting poem, Jones takes on the voice of James Byrd, who was dragged to death in Texas by three white supremacists. In the poem’s devastating final section, Jones uses the particularly American rhythm of the chain gang to make us feel Byrd’s torture: 

                        Chain gang, work song, back road,
                        my body.
                        Chain gang, work song, back road,
                        my body.

The book’s protagonist is known only as “Boy,” a name that condenses to a single word many of this collection’s difficult themes. It’s at once a term of tenderness (“he’s still your boy,” the poem “Insomniac” says to a worried mother) and desire (in internet chatrooms every second screen name is a variant of “boy”); it’s also a term of race hatred. In the collection’s title poem, it’s spoken in both desire and hatred at once, when during sex a man tells the speaker, “I like my black boys broke, or broken. / I like to break my black boys in.”

Saeed-Jones-author-photoIn “History, According to Boy,” the powerful prose narrative that closes the volume, we follow Boy through a childhood landscape scarred by violence, if not quite literally made of it: in a country at constant war, in a city where gay men are murdered behind bars, he lives in a “house made of guns.” Eyes are “narrow as knife wounds”; “a bare lightbulb shines…like a lynched moon.”

Boy is an alien both in and out of his home, increasingly as both he and those around him become more aware of what he desires. The violence around him intensifies, until in the final scene he finds himself nearly engulfed by it, on the point of becoming not just a victim but a perpetrator of terrible acts.

Like the great poets his lines recall—Whitman, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, James Baldwin, to name just a few of the voices that inform this book—Jones makes a music that feels adequate to rage and grief on both a personal and a national scale. Prelude to Bruise is more than a promising debut; it’s the rare book of poetry that urgently speaks—and will continue to speak, I suspect, for a long time—to the intractable griefs of our present moment.

Previous reviews...
Michael Carroll’s ‘Little Reef and Other Stories’
Francine Prose’s ‘Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932’
Mark Gevisser’s ‘Lost and Found in Johannesburg: A Memoir’
Emma Donoghue’s ‘Frog Music’

Garth Greenwell is the author of Mitko, which won the 2010 Miami University Press Novella Prize and was a finalist for both the Edmund White Debut Fiction Award and a Lambda Award. His new novel, What Belongs to You, is forthcoming from Faber/FSG in 2015. He lives in Iowa City, where he is an Arts Fellow at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. Connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.


Frank Bidart's 'Metaphysical Dog': Book Review

BY GARTH GREENWELL

For nearly half a century, Frank Bidart has been obsessed by a single theme. In this brilliant new collection, he calls it “hunger for the absolute”: our seemingly inescapable need for purity and perfection, for some significance that transcends the organic. Whether this hunger leads to philosophy or religion, politics or love or art, it both instills our lives with meaning and makes them intolerable.

Bidart bookFor much of his career, Bidart has explored this theme through long poems written in various personae. (One of these poems, “Herbert White,” was recently made into a film by James Franco, who has championed Bidart’s work.) In Metaphysical Dog, he attempts an accounting of how hunger for the absolute has been the fuel of his own life.

Almost without exception he sees it as a destructive force, beginning with the early “God-hunger” that made him eager to join the ranks of “priests, addicted to // unanswerable but necessary questions, / also everywhere addicted to cruel answers.” As he has in earlier poems, Bidart unequivocally rejects the Catholicism of his youth and the loathing of sex and the body it demanded, calling it an “ecstasy...in which you call the God who made / what must be obliterated in you love.”

But he’s equally suspicious of secular regimes of purity. Several poems in this collection address ideas of America that have long urgently competed in our culture. One of these ideas is of the diverse, tolerant, impure nation celebrated in the poems of Walt Whitman. Against that vision Bidart sets the idea of a “real” or “pure” America, an idea that has been invoked with renewed force in some quarters since the election of an African-American president. In the poem “Inauguration Day,” Bidart presents an ominous image that might have been lifted from the evening news:   

                        staring out across America I see since
                        Lincoln gunmen
                        nursing fantasies of purity betrayed,
                        dreaming to restore
                        the glories of their blood and state

No other poet sounds like Bidart, and even in these few lines you can hear the muscular physicality of his language, the way the sentence twists around the line breaks, never quite as expected. Bidart’s lines are very often beautiful, but they seldom move with conventional grace.

CONTINUED, AFTER THE JUMP...

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Poet Rips Michele Bachmann in Amazing Spoken Word Slam: VIDEO

Demulder

Sierra DeMulder, finalist in the 2013 Women of the World Poetry Slam, performs during the one minute round in WOWPS prelims in Minneapolis, Minnesota with a searing blast of Michele Bachmann.

I transcribed it so you can follow along. You'll probably be watching more than once.

Watch, AFTER THE JUMP...

Your husband owns a clinic that offers to cure homosexuality for up to $10,000 a year. So when you, Representative Bachmann, refused to acknowledge the bullying of gay students in your district, this must have been strictly business.

When another gay teenager commits suicide in Minnesota, you consider this free advertising. You buy a new necklace for every hanging, a bottle of Merlot for each overdose, your husband sends 'thank you' cards to their funeral, hand-signed, all referrals welcomed.

How could we expect you to take a stand against bullying when it helps pay for your mortgage, when it puts food in your children's belly? One day, your youngest daughter will ask you why her school supplies feel like they belong to someone else, her pencils write names that are not hers, Samantha, Nick, Aaron, Kevin. Tell her the truth Michele, that blood money is not a metaphor, that your wallet is heavy with those who have untied themselves. Tell your daughter that God is the bully with the biggest fist and you can only hope that he is on your side!

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Colbert Was Not Impressed by Gay Poet Richard Blanco: VIDEO

Colbert

Stephen Colbert took apart Obama's inauguration last night, "yawning to life" for poet Richard Blanco.

Said an exasperated Colbert:

Would it kill you to throw a rhyme in there? It's a poem. It's not that hard. Here--

There once was a man named Barack
Whose reelection came as a shock
He raised taxes I pay, and then turned marriage gay..
And now he's coming after your glock.

Watch, AFTER THE JUMP...

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Poet Richard Blanco Talks About His Experience on the Podium, Reacts to Obama's Call for Gay Rights: VIDEO

Obrien_blanco

Gay poet Richard Blanco, who read his work "One Today" at the Obama inauguration, talked to Soledad O'Brien on CNN's Starting Point about how it felt to be part of the event, how he prepared for it, and how he felt about Obama's call for gay rights.

Blanco also appeared on AC360 last night to speak with Anderson Cooper about it.

Watch, AFTER THE JUMP...

Ac360_blanco

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Gay Poet Richard Blanco Reads His Inaugural Poem 'One Today': VIDEO

 

Inaug_blanco

Gay poet Richard Blanco took the podium at Obama's inauguration earlier today to read a poem composed specifically for the occasion, entitled "One Today

Watch and read the text of the poem, AFTER THE JUMP...

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